5 July 2020
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Pentecost 5: The Burden of Hope

Bible Passage: Matthew 11:25-30

The Burden of Hope

July 5, 2020

Proper 9: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.

We are weary. We are carrying many burdens: Isolation, loneliness, fear, helplessness, frustration, despair, anger. At best, we don’t like uncertainty and there’s lots of that in the news. At worst, we are afraid for our health, for the health of family members, and for our livelihoods or the livelihoods of those we love. I feel like I said a lot of this two and three months ago and we’re still at it. Still not knowing, still impatient, still worrying. Entering a new phase, I think, of uncertainty this far down the road makes things even harder. These are some of the burdens we carry. And we can only imagine the burdens of uncertainty that Jesus’ first hearers carried.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. You will find rest for your souls, but that does not mean that it’s going to be as easy as we might like. What Jesus offers is, after all, a yoke. This passage comes after four Sundays of hard teachings from Jesus, teachings that reveal to all who listen that he is not about success and triumph in the way we think of it in the world, but about God’s mission of reconciliation and transformation. Sometimes, to be God’s missionary is to empty oneself, to let go, to sacrifice for one another. To be gentle and humble of heart. For many of us, this Coronatide season has taught us this lesson over and over again.

To be God’s missionary is to turn oneself over to Jesus. Everyone expected a Messiah to change the world order; instead, here is Jesus saying: Come to me. Take my yoke. Rest with me.

It’s interesting that Jesus says this in the imperative. Do this. He is not inviting us; he is telling us, if we have heavy burdens, to come to him. I think Jesus makes this not optional because he knows that as humans, left to our own devices, we will keep carrying those burdens alone.

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Our closing hymn today is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by James Weldon Johnson as a poem celebrating the end of slavery. It was publicly read for the first time in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900, and set to music in 1905. In 1919 the NAACP began calling it “the Black National Anthem.” It reminds us of God’s presence in suffering and in hope. The song has a great history, from its first performance in 1905 through Nascar a few weeks ago. For most of my years as a priest I have chosen it as part of the service closest to the Fourth of July. I do this because I want every one of us to name the coexistence of suffering and hope that the song puts into words so stirringly. This year it feels more relevant than ever. We are constantly reminded that the liberty won with the end of slavery was short-lived, and that descendants of slaves still tread the stony road and feel the chastening rod.  And this year, more than ever, we need to be reminded of God’s presence in this suffering, and to live, nonetheless, in hope. In the language of today’s reading from the prophet Zechariah, we need to live as prisoners of hope.

Hope can be a kind of burden, especially as the slog through the two pandemics—coronavirus and systemic racism—continues. Hope can humble us. When we are weary and helpless, it is often all we have. Hope is not the same thing as optimism.

The former Czech president Vaclav Havel wrote that “hope is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”

Sometimes it would be easier to let go of hope. Anyone who has ever chosen to go through risky cancer treatment or anyone who has accompanied someone in that situation knows about the vulnerability of hope. You might think of a time in your own life when you’ve experienced this vulnerability in hope. Christ models the way that we bear this burden: he is gentle and humble in heart, and that is what he tells us to learn from him. (Some versions say “meek and lowly in heart.”) He is willing to be vulnerable. He offers peace. He offers rest.

I have been feeling very burdened, as I know many of you do, as well, by the moral reckoning happening in our country right now. I mentioned the two pandemics: It seems that the pandemic of Covid is turning into a battle between people who are willing to be yoked together, bearing one another’s burdens, and people whose primary concern is their own autonomy.

I feel both hopeful and overwhelmed to imagine that the burden of repairing our racist culture is finally shifting—quite rightly—from the shoulders of people of color to Americans who have controlled our national narrative since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On this weekend when our nation celebrates the declaration of independence, we need to remember, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, that no one is free when others are oppressed, and that our God is always on the side of the oppressed. To be on God’s side is to break the chains of oppression that bind our Black and brown siblings. This is our burden; God is not going to take it from us, but God is going to partner with us. Let us yoke ourselves to the one who is gentle and humble in heart. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Let this be our hope.